By Why Evolution is True
Philosophers have reproved me because, as a mere biologist, I have no right to criticize the teaching of philosophy of religion in colleges, nor to call for its end. But I reject the idea that biologists have no standing to give such an opinion, just as I reject the notion that philosophers can’t pass judgement on whether some areas of science are unproductive. All that matters is that opinions must be informed and supported with arguments. And I think I know enough about the philosophy of religion, and about how it’s taught in some colleges, to pass at least a reasonably informed judgment on the value of the discipline—which is almost nil. It’salmost nil because while it can inform us about the influence of scripture and how it was invented (a useful endeavor), it also promulgates religion and prepares students for the ministry.
I think that teaching different philosophies of religion in secular schools is fine—so long as it’s in courses on comparative religion. And some Biblical scholarship is also useful for it’s a form of historical reconstruction of a document that is taken seriously. So, too, are courses in the Bible as literature, in the same way that we should have courses in Shakespeare as literature, or in any influential form of literature (or forms that deserve to be more influential).
But too often courses in the philosophy of religion turn into courses on religious apologetics: teaching Biblical exegesis as if the Bible were true. So, secular schools like Duke and Harvard (and my own school) have “divinity schools.” Those schools teach, in part, theology. I don’t see that as a valid subject for a secular school, since it’s the study of a nonexistent entity and what he/she/it wants us to do. Comparative theology is fine, but do we need whole schools of this stuff at secular universities?
Here are a few courses from the prestigious Harvard Divinity School (to be sure, this school has a lot more diversity, in terms of courses on different faiths, than other divinity schools):
Intimacy with God: Jewish Conceptions of Communion, Mystical Union and the Holy Spirit
Introduction to Islamic Mysticism: The Sufi Tradition
Greek Exegesis of John
Religion, Gender, and Culture Colloquium: Feminist Theory and Theology
Clinical Chaplaincy: Interfaith Caregiving Skills and Practice
United Methodist Polity
Meaning Making – Thinking Theologically about Ministry Experience: Seminar
Catholicism Faces Modernity: Classics of Twentieth Century Roman Catholicism
Advanced Spiritual Counseling: Taking Care of Others, Taking Care of Self: Seminar
Pentecostal Polity Note the description: The history, principles and practice of Pentecostal believers. To understand the nature and functioning of Pentecostal denominations. To prepare Pentecostal students for ordination. The course will include liturgy, worship, and theology of the Pentecostal faith. The focus primarily will be on the major Pentecostal denominations and the charismatic flavor of other major denominations.
United Church of Christ Polity: The history, polity, and practice of the United Church of Christ. Issues addressed throughout include ecclesiology, mission, professional ethics, the ordination process, justice, as well as contemporary principles and patterns of the UCC. Students seeking ordination are urged to take this course during their middler year, but all are welcome
Communication Skills for Spanish Ministry
Unitarian Universalist Religious Education: Seminar. This course is designed to equip future ministers with the knowledge, skills, resourcefulness, and self-awareness needed to form the faith of Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century.
Introduction to Christian Preaching: This course introduces students to the theology and the practice of preaching within the Christian tradition. Special attention will be paid to developing a theological understanding of both the preacher and the preached word, and students will be expected to prepare and deliver several sermons during the course of the term.
This is only a small sample. A sudden pain in my lower mesentery prevented me from going further down the list. It’s long.
But you get the point: many of these courses are designed to prepare students to learn and preach the Word of God, while others involve minute exegesis of fiction in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated for any other influential work of fiction. There are dozens and dozens of these courses. I think many are superfluous, for they’re helping students spread delusions.
But if you reject my standing to say this, listen instead to John Loftus, who used to be an evangelical Christian preacher, but gave up the faith. Loftus is now not only writing about his “deconversion,” but also offering thoughtful critiques of Christianity. I particularly like his book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (only about $13 on Amazon), which is far more than just a deconversion tale: it’s also an incisive critique of Christian apologetics. His anthology edited with Dan Barker, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, is also very good, and contains a chapter on Loftus’s well-known “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF), a rational program for examining why one should prefer one’s own religion over others (hint: you should reject them all). You can find a bunch of John’s online writings about the OTF here.
But I digress. Loftus has a new piece at his site, Debunking Christianity, with the no-nonsense title, “I’m calling for an end to the philosophy of religion as a discipline in secular universities.” (Note also that the next day he had a back-and-forth about this with Biblical scholar Jaco Gericke).
Loftus’s essay is a response to a book by philosopher Graham Oppy defending philosophy of religion, Reinventing Philosophy of Religion: An Opinionated Introduction, as well as a YouTube video interiew Oppy did about the topic/ I haven’t read the book, but I have watched the (or rather listened) to the video, where Oppy criticizes Peter Boghossian and my own views against teaching this discipline. Loftus’s criticisms of Oppy are on the mark:
Oppy tells us: “Philosophy of religion as a discipline, I would think, probably doesn’t date much earlier than the second World War.” This historical lesson is significant, I think, for we did without it for centuries and we can do without it again. Later Oppy offers his criticism, saying, “Most of the people who have done philosophy of religion have been theists.” So it stands to reason “it has had an extremely narrow focus…It hasn’t really been the philosophy of religion but rather Christianity with a very great emphasis on theism,” and even apologetics/Christian theology. Okay then, as it stands today the philosophy of religion is dominated by Christian theists who discuss concepts and arguments germane to Christianity, and even defending it. Given what he said, the philosophy of religion needs reinvented if it is to survive. The unaddressed question is why we should have a discipline in any secular university where theism, or Christian theism, Christian theology or Christian apologetics is privileged and considered to the exclusion of all other religions or apologetics? It shouldn’t. If this is the state of affairs then the only reasonable response is to call for the end of that discipline. NOW!
Oppy calls for the broadening of the discipline to other religions. My response is similar to that of Loftus: there are thousands of religions, past and present, all with different “philosophies” (i.e., philosophies). Which ones should we study? And given that all the tenets of these religions are dubious, and their evidence for gods nonexistent, do we need entire departments to handle this stuff? Loftus responds:
To reinvent the philosophy of religion Oppy argues, “it must address questions that apply to the phenomena of religion in general.” That’s it. He argues the philosophy of religion should also discuss Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist views and religious concepts. By extension I would think, it should also discuss the views of other religions, all of them (although there is quite the discussion about what even makes a religion a religion). Oppy’s proposal would therefore include all of the dead religions too. Why not? Why assume that a dead religion, or a dead god, is no longer worthy to be discussed? Why not discuss Zoroastrianism, or Canaanite religions? Does the death of a religion mean it must not be a true one? I see no reason to think so. And who decides which religion is worthy of discussing?
. . . In any case, if the philosophy of religion was reinvented as Oppy suggests, then what we would end up with is a Religious Studies discipline and classes focusing on comparative religion, or the varieties of religious experience, where religious are compared/contrasted/considered and the secular counter-part is offered as a critique of them all. But we already have these kinds of classes.
Indeed we do. What we don’t need are entire Divinity Schools or Schools of Theology in secular universities. This privileges an entire discipline based on a human endeavor that itself rests on dubious and unsubstantiated claims. Further, they concentrate largely (but not exclusively) on active Abrahamic religions. There are few, if any, courses on atheism in divinity schools, but they should be at least as prominent as courses in religious apologetics. That is distasteful in a country that officially favors no religion in particular. If we are to have such schools, let us then have Ethical Schools, or Schools of Moral Thinking, or The School of Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. But all of these can simply be subsumed in departments of philosophy or history.
Indeed, why not have a School of Pseudoscience, which teaches courses on creationism and its arguments, ESP and its arguments, homeopathy and its arguments, and so on? Or how about a school that one can justify far better: The School of the History and Philosophy of Science? There are programs in this area, but usually those courses—courses that deal with reality instead of fiction—are subsumed in philosophy departments. And that’s fine.